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How to talk to kids about sex—and 20 books that can help

An age-by-age guide to talking about the tough stuff

A dad talks to his teenage son as they sit on an outdoor bench. Credit: Getty Images / cokada

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The talk: Many of us had it. Many more of us dread the inevitable time when we’ll have to give it. While we’ve all been conditioned to think of teaching kids about sex as one big “talk” to plan for (and get over and done with in one sitting) experts agree that the idea of “the talk” is outdated.

“Our focus should not be on having one discussion once kids have reached puberty. It’s about making sex and sexuality something that kids should always be learning about,” says Deborah Roffman, human sexuality educator, author, and consultant based at The Park School of Baltimore.

Roffman and the other experts we spoke with all agree that if you wait to have the talk until puberty starts, you may be too late.

“The point is to have the conversation open from the beginning,” says Roffman. “It’s about creating scaffolding for later conversations. When we put the conversations off, children don’t have any scaffolding in place for when they start to become sexual.”

There’s no argument that talking to your kid about sex can be daunting. So we asked the experts how and when to start, what to talk about at each age, and how to keep the conversation going. Here is an age-by-age guide, filled with expert-driven advice, on how to remove the taboo and eliminate sexual secrecy to encourage open communication with your child. We’ve also picked a few books and resources ourselves, to help get the conversations going.

Birth to age 3

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You lay the foundation for consent at a very young age.

According to all of the experts we spoke to, discussions about sexuality should start much younger than you think. As a matter of fact, you can start giving children the scaffolding Roffman talks about in infanthood.

“Whenever you are interacting with their body you can be modeling consent, and that can start when you’re changing their diapers,” says Justine Ang Fonte, an intersectional sexuality educator based in New York City. “Tell them what you are doing with their body; for example you can say ‘I’m going to clean your vulva or your penis or your anus.’”

Fonte says that when you explain the body parts to them from a young age, they become better acquainted with their bodies and grow up having stronger ownership over them.

Teach consent young

This is also a good time to talk to kids about when it’s appropriate to touch and be touched—both by themselves and others—and to continually talk about it so it’s ingrained in their thinking from an early age.

Fonte explains that when you give them the language and rationale of why you are touching their bodies, you set up expectations of what is appropriate and what is not from the get go. This helps develop ingrained expectations that they are in control of their own bodies and it sets them up for a well-developed foundational understanding of consent, to both protect themselves and others.

Eva S. Goldfarb, professor of public health with a specialty in sexual education at Montclair State University in New Jersey, agrees.

“Knowing the names of body parts is so important. Young children who can name their body parts appropriately are much less likely to be sexually abused," Goldfarb says. "Giving them precise language early on takes the mystery out of understanding their bodies, which gives them ownership of their bodies from a very early age.”

This may also be a good time to get kids acquainted with the idea of pregnancy. Our experts recommend using this time to point out pregnancies in people you may see out and about, and show them photos of the time they were growing in someone’s belly.

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Ages 4 to 6

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If a child says something inappropriate, it's usually because they don't understand or are confused. Approach with patience.

Roffman, Fonte, and Goldfarb all agree that you should continue the discussion of consent at this age, making sure that your child understands appropriate and inappropriate touch. This is a good time to establish firmly that they have a say over their bodies. It’s also important to convey to them that you are a safe person to talk to if something feels inappropriate, even if they have previously kept an uncomfortable or confusing interaction a secret.

According to Roffman, there are numerous cognitive leaps from ages 4 to 6 that make this an incredibly important foundational period for talks about reproduction. At age 4, kids begin to understand the concept of separateness, which piques their curiosity in the time before they were born, making this a great time to discuss their birth story with them.

Little kids and big concepts

Discuss with them the time they were in the uterus. Fonte says that you can explain the individual details of their birth story, but it’s also a good idea to let your children know around this time that there are many ways for a baby to become a part of a family.

Roffman explains that by the time they reach age 6, they are starting to abstract and not only want to learn about the time they were in the uterus, but how they got there.

“Six-year-olds are little scientists. They understand the principle of cause and effect. They are ready for a conversation about sperm and egg and how they get together,” says Roffman.

All of our experts agree that—if you haven’t already—now is a good time to seek out web content and purchase books to help kids piece together the puzzle of how babies are made, and to allow for a level of comfort to be established for ongoing conversations.

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Ages 7 to 9

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If you haven't talked with them about sex yet, you may have to undo all of the stuff they've learned from Google.

While our experts say that discussions should start far earlier than age 7, if you haven’t started talking about sex with your children, now is the time to remove the taboo.

This is when your kids are going to have lots of questions. Goldfarb says that, whether they are coming to you or not to ask these questions, depends on if you establish a relationship of trust and openness, or if you establish one of secrecy and taboo. One thing is for certain, however, they will look for answers.

“If they aren’t coming to you, they are going to find their answers someplace else. ... Do you want them to get their information from you, or from classmates and Google?” asks Goldfarb.

This is the right time for you to make sure they understand the science of reproduction, including sperm, eggs, and a uterus, as well as gender-expansive practices.

Break the taboo

“These topics are not taboo to kids, they are taboo to parents. If we choose to avoid and remain silent about these subjects, we are abdicating our ability to assist our children in the understanding of these subjects,” says Goldfarb.

Goldfarb also says parents should revise their expectations of children. Oftentimes a child will say, ask, or seek out something inappropriate at this age and older. More often than not, she says, when a child is inappropriate it’s based in misunderstanding.

“You really want to set up a relationship of guidance. If they are asking inappropriate questions, rather than shaming or shutting them down, look at it as an opportunity to let them know that they can come to you for answers and guidance without shame or judgement,” says Goldfarb.

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Ages 9 to 12

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You may feel like you have everything covered, but the beginning of puberty can be confusing for tweens when it finally starts to occur. Be sure to check in and acknowledge their questions.

According to Roffman, by 3rd or 4th grade, many kids will have started to pick up plenty of day-in and day-out life experiences. If you haven’t started the discussion with them until now, be forewarned that their baseline knowledge may be distorted and a bit inaccurate.

“They haven’t been in a vacuum,” says Roffman, adding that you may have to start the conversation with, "What do you know?" and go from there.

“You may have to take them through what they should have learned earlier,” says Roffman. “You want to make sure their knowledge is accurate, and you want to shift things so that you are their go-to person.”

Normalize puberty

Age 9 is a perfect time to normalize puberty for kids. You may have already prepared them for its arrival, but it’s a whole other thing when their body actually starts to change—or when they see their classmates’ bodies change.

“Just because you told them their body is going to change, doesn’t always mean they’ll be comfortable when those changes arise,” says Fonte. She adds that some kids may feel confused that their bodily changes may be occurring at a different rate than others, be it more rapidly or slowly. They may also have different expectations of the changes once they start. She recommends you check in regularly.

“Google is not your friend,” says Fonte. “The media starts to inform their self esteem and they aren’t getting credible resources.”

She says that it’s a good idea to explain what’s happening inside that is causing them to feel, look, and smell differently on the outside.

“Let them know, ‘Here is why these changes are happening. Your body is getting ready to be a reproductive adult,’” says Fonte.

Address pornography

While you are normalizing puberty, you may also want to start a foundation of guidance when it comes to urges and curiosity. This is the right time to begin a conversation about pornography. As their body changes and they start to recognize internal urges, their curiosity is going to grow and the internet will be ready and waiting for them.

“Putting the term 'pornography' in their vernacular is appropriate at this time,” says Fonte. “They are going to start seeking it out. It’s important you explain exactly what it is.”

Goldfarb agrees, and says that rather than hoping they won’t find pornography, you should instead assume that they will likely search for it on their own. Approach their natural curiosity by helping them understand that pornography is not a reliable source.

“It’s natural and normal for them to seek out [pornography], but that doesn’t mean they understand it. This is the right time to explain that pornography is an inaccurate picture of what sex is,” says Goldfarb.

She says to explain your concerns to them, and help them find more healthy and age-appropriate ways to investigate sex.

“You don’t want this to be the sole way they learn about sex. Let them know that—while you understand why they sought it out—watching pornography can give them the wrong idea about sex. Let them know it’s not real and that it’s a medium created to get them to watch and pay money for it,” says Goldfarb.

Goldfarb says to make sure you have books and appropriate online resources at your disposal when the pornography talk arises. She says rather than ban pornography, supply them with plenty of media that sends them the right messages.

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Teens

A Black man talks with his teenage son.
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It's important to talk to teens without judgement.

By this time you should already have established open communication with your child on the subject of sex. If you started early, you’ll begin to see the benefits now, with a child who feels comfortable coming to you with questions.

If you haven’t yet had that conversation, however, you still can. At this point, make sure they know that you aren’t there simply to inform and walk away, but you are going to be present with any other questions they may have. And don’t feel like you have to do it all at once.

“There is much pressure to have one big conversation,” says Fonte. “It can be 100 one-minute talks.”

One thing is for certain, no matter how you approach the discussion, make sure that it’s not a lecture.

Make a judgement-free zone

“It’s not about being in charge or a point of authority. This should be free from judgement and it should be a two-sided conversation where there is room for questions and learning,” says Goldfarb.

That being said, there is a lot of ground to cover once your kids are teens, including details of contraception and readiness.

Fonte says that it’s good to talk about what contraception best fits your child and their body, and it’s a smart idea to include their doctor in this conversation.

This doesn’t mean that you are encouraging them to have sex. The aim is to ensure that, when the time does come, they are making correct and healthy choices for their bodies and for their individual comfort level.

She says it’s equally important to talk with them about how to assess if the time is right for them to have sex. Fonte explains that readiness can be a confusing concept for kids, and they need the right tools and guidance to understand that pressure doesn’t equal readiness.

Understanding readiness

She recommends giving examples of good friends, versus friends who might pressure them into experiences they aren’t comfortable with, to help them understand the concept of pressure-free readiness.

“Have them assess and think about their friendships. Are these friendships that serve you? This is a really good time to help them identify healthy relationships that serve them,” says Fonte.

Fonte recommends you ask them if it’s truly the right time and place for this to be happening, if it’s something they want to do, and if they are actually looking forward to it or if they feel pressure, either from the person they intend to have sex with or other people.

“Assessing if they are looking forward to it is a really good way to help them identify if they are ready. Their head, body, and heart should work in tandem to assess their readiness,” says Fonte.

When it comes to teens, you want to empower them to make good decisions. By starting early, having the right conversations at the right age, and by creating a culture in your home of confidence rather than taboo, you are empowering them to do just that.

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